Back in the fall of 2011 I was asked by a friend to try to provide a definition of evil. It was something I often talked about. What follows here is my rather sketchy attempt, notes merely, to delineate what is in truth an extraordinarily complex subject. To do justice, even to my own thoughts, on this subject would require much more time.
Furthermore I am going only going to discuss human evil and leave aside troubling questions about the incidental evils of earthquakes, mosquitoes and viruses. These natural evils do ultimately have to fit into a comprehensive answer to the question of evil, but I believe the real question here relates to that which we find in humanity. The capacity to choose to do evil things.
I have met a few people who actually don’t believe in evil. One woman, an established New York Times bestselling writer, told me that she felt that most things that were considered evils were really just extreme misunderstandings. In other words if people had just had more knowledge evil wouldn’t occur. My response to her… She lives in an incredibly sheltered world.
Let me enlarge that world a teeny bit with a couple of examples of what can only be described as evil.
The first comes from World War Two. In Poland, in late summer of 1944, the Russians were chasing the Nazis as they arrived at the banks of the Vistula River, which runs along the eastern edge of Warsaw. The Poles sensing that the Soviet Army was close rose up to overthrow their oppressors on August 1st. The Nazis were given such a bad time that they actually began to leave… That is until they realized that the Russians were not going to across the river. The Nazis then turned around. Then the city was leveled and more than 200,000 people died before the Poles capitulated near the end of September. The Soviet Army did not help, because they wanted to control Poland after the war. The atrocities got so bad inside Warsaw that troops under the German command even raided a cancer ward of Polish female patients. They were raped in their beds, burned alive and shot if they tried to escape. Illustrations of evil during wartime are endless some much worse than this.
A second illustration comes from the world of science. Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychologist, conducted a series of experiments that showed that average people would administer what they were told were lethal electric shocks to unseen strangers at the behest of an authority figure. So focused were they on completing their tasks that they would violate their own consciences to order to perform their instructions. These tests have been replicated in various countries around the world with fairly consistent results.
Finally something from my own life. In the mid-Seventies I worked in a mental institution in California. It was a locked facility. When I first started working there I would come across one inmate named Bryan. I couldn’t tell if he was forty or sixty. He’d always greet me in the same manner. “Hi” he’d say in a high whiny voice. “Hi” I’d reply. “What’s your sign?” he’d ask. I told him I didn’t really follow astrology. “Oh…” he would sound dejected for an instant.“Is my mother coming today?” he’d finally ask. After a few days of this repetitious behavior I thought I’d respond a little differently. “Do you want me to find out whether your mother’s coming Bryan?” He beamed. “Could you?” “Yeah I’ll look into it for you.” “Thanks.” He smiled. I walked over to the nurses station and asked one of the other orderlies if Bryan’s mother was coming soon. He looked at me with a smirk. “Oh you don’t know…” “What?” I said. “Look in the patients record book.” He pointed to a stainless steel folder. I flipped it back, scanned down the page and read the following: “Bryan’s mother had him castrated at the age of six.” And the evil here is not only in the mother’s choice, but also in the ironic smirk of the orderly.
I’ve been thinking a lot of about evil ever since then… And I’ve come to a few conclusions.
First of all evil is connected to choice. It is not merely an ignorance of crucial bits of moral knowledge, but there is something actively added to the mix.
Secondly evil is a relationship. Or rather evil is a breaking of relationships. With Our family, our loves, our children, our friends, our animals, and land, our country, ourselves, and ultimately God. The lie is evil because it severs a relationship, even if only one side of the equation knows it. Likewise stealing, envy, prejudice, etc. are all breakers of relationships. Sex seems to be a zone that breeds strange forms of evil. It is not sex that is evil, rather it is the breaking of that bond of trust which is the real problem, especially when it is inevitable. And there is too much in our age that encourages a narcissistic selfishness with regard to fulfilling one’s “needs”.
One evil often breeds another. To damage a child is to create a crucible of dark possibilities. The abused child doesn’t necessarily become sympathetic with other abused souls. Au contraire, some do go on to abuse their own children.
Evil is often done when we are protecting ourselves. In other words our own pain is the justification for committing acts against others. I’m convinced that no evil is done in the name of being an evil badass. Everyone has a good excuse. Everyone is right in their own eyes. The distance between being a victim and a victimizer is narrow indeed.
The distance between great evil (war atrocities, rape, etc) and everyday evil (drunkenness, gossip, etc) is not very far at all. It could be argued that the smallest act of evil could unleash incredibly dark scenarios. A stupid fumbling advance at a house party sends a girl home on icy roads with too much alcohol in her veins. She crashes and dies on black ice. The boy later kills himself. The community is angrily divided about what to do about the town’s drinking problem. (This is a story I witnessed.)
Evil also tries to eliminate the effects of time. Evil wants it now. The most evil person would be the one who had the will and the means to get whatever was desired as near to the moment desired as possible.
Or look at it this way. You are walking down a busy city street. What can you do that will effect someone for the rest of their life in terms of evil? The options are nearly limitless. You can trip them, punch them, shoot them, push them into the path of an oncoming car, spit at them, yell at them, make derogatory remarks about their body, threaten them, even just laugh at them. And whatever you do will be remembered.
If you reverse this thought experiment and ask what can you do that is truly good to any person on that same street, the options are few. Because any action you do might be misunderstood, or inflame problems that you know nothing about, even a smile at the wrong moment could be construed as cruel. If you gave money to a homeless person, you don’t know if they’ll just go out and buy drugs or booze with it. The only positive thing I can think of would be to save the person from a car accident or a mugging. In other words to stop an active evil. To do real good takes time. You have to know a person’s needs. Good rarely happens instantly, unequivocally.
And so ultimately all questions about evil come back to ourselves, to our own desires, to what we are willing to do to get what we want. If life is only about having fun, feeling good, staying safe, then evil is already at our door. It will manifest itself in hundreds of small but insidious ways. And then the question is what to do about it?
That brings up the question of redemption… but that’s another much longer discussion. Maybe someday I’ll get to it here.
December 8th 2019
(This one was for Vanessa.)
I am currently in Tbilisi, Georgia. Far from everything I have known, living the Anadromous Life on the edge. And hey! You can support our work here and for The Anadromist channels by through in some coin at PayPal. Click THIS LINK HERE! And if you give $!0 per month or more than $50 you’ll get audio lectures. Thanks!
I have returned to Tbilisi Georgia nearly two years after my 2016 visit. And I am gaining a larger perspective than I had before. I’ve nearly finished learning the alphabet and I’ve met many friends, old and new, as I wander the streets observing the world around me. My observations directly connected to my chief aims of puppetry, music and dance will be covered on my Gravity From Above site, but here I am going to continue dealing with the other aspects of Georgian culture that call to me. And today nothing called out as loud as the legacy of Communism in the old Soviet Union, which Georgia was buried deeply within, as I visited the Joseph Stalin Underground Printing House Museum.
But before we enter that world a bit of background. A quick look at the wars of Georgia, both outside invasion and civil strife, produces well over a staggering 150 conflicts before the year 1800 from Persia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, the Mongols and the Ottomans among many, many others. And around the year 1800 the Russian Empire muscled its way into the area and presented a deal the Georgians couldn’t turn down, eventually swallowing them into greater Russia. To this day it is a common misconception that the Georgians speak Russian and write in the Cyrillic alphabet. Then after a very brief season of Georgian independence during the Russian Revolution Georgia declared itself as a state and from 1918 until 1921 they were free and the blossoms of liberty began to grow everywhere. Until they were harvested by the new Soviet Union and were ‘allowed’ to spend another 70 years under Russian/Soviet yoke.
Since the 1991 declaration of independence Georgia has remained free, though not without periods of strife. And so it is inevitable that the marks of both Russia and the Soviet Union (not the same thing at all) are still quite heavy on the land. To be fair some of these marks are not bad. Under the Soviet system education was encouraged as was theatre, ballet, puppets (!) and other cultural products… though always at the whim of the state censors. But other effects were much more troubling. Churches were banned under the atheist system. And many church buildings were destroyed or put to non-religious uses. I stepped into the Lado Gudiashvili Museum to look at work by that painter who had been part of that brief moment of freedom in the early 20th Century and who had continued on under the Soviet Union. He mostly stayed with a sort of surrealistic portraiture heavily influenced by his wide knowledge of Medieval Georgian frescos. And in 1947 he was asked to paint the altar of the Kashueti Orthodox Church on Rustaveli Avenue. He did it, then was barred for a while from the painters union. He often made scabrous sketches reflecting his cynicism of the Soviet system. But his fresco still stands.
Another area where the Soviet Union is still deeply felt is in the endless blocks of concrete apartment buildings circling the town. And they are often indeed gray and eerie as they house thousands upon thousands. And so while there is much new building going on these days it is hotels and not as often affordable replacements for these gloomy structures.
One question I sometimes wonder is where would Georgia be today if it could have stayed free in 1921. It’s a dream I know. Nevertheless the Georgian people have a lot of natural creativity and drive. Yet one gets the feeling that they are still digging out painfully from the basic burdens left by communism. And part of that burden is a kind of fatalism that I have encountered in other former Eastern Bloc countries. In Romania, in the Czech Republic, to a lesser degree in Poland, you often hear some equivalent to the statement “What can you do?” Here in Georgia it attaches itself to issues like traffic congestion, air pollution, recycling, etc. But not only that, these very creative people will sometimes hit a roadblock in their lives. And then you can see a cloud of fatalism passing over them. Which is odd because I’m convinced that this fatalism is a foreign import, it is not native to Georgia. Yet even I being one of the least optimistic Americans you will ever meet, always feel that there must be more options. The world may be dark, but I don’t have that fatalism that clouds future action.
The most interesting thing that happened to me with regard to Georgia’s communist past occurred today. I went to find a strange little museum that I’d heard about. One not covered in guide books. You probably already guessed that I mean the Joseph Stalin Underground Printing House Museum. Now if that sounds strange to you trust me on this, the title of the museum wasn’t nearly as weird as the museum itself. I took the metro to a stop I’d never been to before – 300 Aragveli*. (I don’t know what that refers to, it’s not an address.) After a rambling walk I arrived at a door that could be no other than the house museum. It featured hammer and sickle designs in Soviet red. And what was odd is that it didn’t look like commentary or in any manner ironic. And lo and behold it wasn’t. (See above.)
For those who don’t know history as well as you should, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was not Russian, he was in fact the most famous (or infamous) Georgian who ever lived. His Georgian name was Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili (იოსებ ბესარიონის ძე ჯუღაშვილი). He was born in the Georgian city of Gori, where a controversial museum dedicated to him exists to this day. Stalin is of course responsible for more deaths than Adolf Hitler and yet there are those, even in Georgia, who wax nostalgic for the old days. And I had indeed walked into such a place.
The museum was like a frozen tableau of the Soviet Union without any upkeep whatsoever. Entering the dark corroding building was like entering into a time warp of the days before 1991, no really before 1953, it was the grayest dingiest thing I’d ever come across, from exactly the kinds of minds that thought that people wanted big ugly apartments. I was brought into a room festooned with red flags and pictures of Lenin and Stalin and an old comrade, a true believer in Soviet style Communism, named Zhuli was speaking Russian like a native. A young Russian teenager and his mother were there too. And that was fortunate because the boy became my interpreter for the deeply felt tour Zhuli was just starting. I mentioned that I was from America, which produced a puzzled look from Zhuli, who then recovered quickly with the only question one could ask at such an occasion: Are you a communist? The answer was a simple ‘No’. I wanted to understand what was going on here much too much to say that I was anything but! Yet from then on he took it as his mission to convert me. To tell me of the heroism of comrade Stalin and the way things had been.
Zhuli told us that back in the heyday of the Soviet Union, during the summers, over 500 hundred people a day would come to this museum. And this place was the house that hid Comrade Jugashvili, where they printed revolutionary pamphlets and papers in Georgian, Armenian and Russian. He show us fading imitation copies, decaying on the walls. (“They don’t give us much money for this museum.’) They had built a loud printing press under the nearby house (a reconstruction since it had been torn down by the Georgians after it had been discovered) and had an elaborate escape hatch through a deep well. And that was fascinating in itself. The well was still there. And another printing press, same German make and model, probably used somewhere else for propaganda, was rusting under the house because the chamber would flood regularly. Zhuli showed us diagrams and models of the house plans. He showed us photocopy clippings of atrocities committed by the Nazis in World War 2. He showed us a large map with little lights that glowed where revolutionary cells had been. We walked by socialist realist paintings of Stalin, Lenin, Molotov and others. He told us of Stalin’s heroic escapes in times of danger. Not a word was whispered about purges, famines, gulags, murders, the millions.
I was just in awe that such a man still existed. Zhuli was a man who still lived for the party. He was a man in his 80’s with a cult-like devotion to communism. And he knew it was going to come back. And when I thought about recent far left appropriations of the hammer and sickle image, whether by Antifa or by Jeremy Corbyn supporters in the UK, I wondered if he might not have a point. Because this was a man entirely possessed by his ideology of total egalitarianism, and that idea had come back with a vengeance, though applied with different terms for oppression, among people in the West who know nothing about the Gulag and the millions of victims of communist totalitarianism from Russia to China and far beyond.
As I left I looked at a funny work of graffiti on the wall outside, and I thought of this earnest man inside for whom such a thing would be incomprehensible. Bourgeois hooliganism would be the only category he would have for such a thing. He called the independence of Georgia a blow for the ‘counterrevolutionaries’. But you knew he thought it was only temporary. As I walked back towards the Avlabari metro station I walked passed a massive new Sheraton Hotel going up not far from the Joseph Stalin Underground Printing House Museum. Here’s the new ideology Zhuli. Yes indeed there will be one world, it’s just not the one you were imagining.
*Discovered later: 300 Aragveli – The Three Hundred Aragvians are a detachment of the highlanders from the Aragvi valley, near Tbilisi, who fought to the last man against the invading Qajar (Persian) army in 1795 at the battle of Krtsanisi, .
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 4- Puppetry Can Do Everything
On to Berlin… The name alone conjures up some powerful images: Prussian soldiers, 1920’s decadence, Hitler, the Russians ripping the city to shreds, the Cold War and dances on the crumbling Wall. It’s all there and much more: A city obliterated by the past and a perpetual construction zone preparing for an unrealized future. City workers spend time erasing neo-Nazi graffiti, while the overwhelming Turkish presence raises questions yet to be answered. What does Islam mean in secular Berlin?
My very good friend Millay Hyatt met me at the Ostbahnhof. Millay has an endless curiosity about many subjects. She took me to a Stanley Kubrick exhibit, an abandoned amusement park, rows of endless communist era buildings and a monumental Soviet World War 2 memorial, among other places. She also aided me immensely by becoming my interpreter for two puppet theatres.
The first theatre, a shadow theatre called the Fuguren-Zirkel (Figure Circle), was run by an affable Austrian named Georg Jenisch. We watched romantic and psychedelic displays of light and shadow along with the music of Mozart’s Magic Flute. His entrancing figures were elaborately cut from malleable plastic or even flexible plastic mirrors to give an effect of not only shadow puppets but of light figures as well. Strange little figures danced around in a large circular window, the size of a pair of outstretched adult arms, and it seemed impossible that there was only one man behind the stage. His figures were based partly on Turkish shadow puppets. But he was also clearly influenced by the work of the brilliant silhouette filmmaker and shadow puppeteer Lotte Reiniger. He was also a musician himself and composed music for his performances at times. Georg thought his figures should only move to music and never speak. This was similar in style to the Salzburg Marionette Theater where he had indeed worked. Puppet art had been more innovative in the 90s, he felt, yet he seemed to feel it was regrouping. Overall it was a courteous and friendly interview.
It was then time to see Das Weite Theater performing a piece called The White Hammer at Die Schaubude Theater, which was the funniest piece of puppet art I’ve yet to see. A small cuddly white bunny hops out onto the stage. It eats what appear to be real carrots. A sinister female puppet slinks out onto the stage and then without warning pounces upon the critter and slices open the rabbits throat in an exceptionally bloody scene of red cloth blood. I know this doesn’t sound funny. But trust me the abrupt U-turn between cute little bunny and mad slasher was outrageously funny. I mean who expects a white rabbit to be mercilessly slaughtered within the first few minutes of a play. (Don’t worry though the bunny’s ghost returns near the end of the evening.) The rest of the play was a comic farce based on whodunnits. Blockheaded puppets carved by Czechs moved in frantically satirical actions. One buck-toothed woman spun around in circles every time some the possibility of danger was even hinted at. The farcical movements were given to them by Torsten Gesser and Irene Winter. It was mostly just the two of them with as many as six large wooden hand puppets at a time. And they turned out to be excellent interview subjects. Millay Hyatt provided excellent help by translating their predominantly German speech.
As we spoke I began to piece together the story of puppetry behind the Iron Curtain. The Communist state, through direct Russian orders, funded puppet theatres. For years an artistic council planned the repertoire, which was mostly Russian Fairy Tales and folk tales. Before the Wall fell there were 17 serious puppet theatres in East Germany. Shows for adults began in the early 1980’s, notably a puppet presentation of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper or as it is know in English the Three Penny Opera. (Brecht was known for his leftward leanings.)
Was criticism of the government present in these puppet shows?
“The puppet theatres did not feel as much pressure as the standard Theatre and the Opera did.” said Irene. “There was always a way to express criticism through puppetry in the GDR. You didn’t do it in a blatant way though, you used subtlety. People in East Germany were used to reading between the lines. So the audience could tell when something was being said.”
Was it done by allegory?
“Here’s an example?” Irene continued. “ We did a version of satirical Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. There were soldiers in the forest watching everything. They were spies for the Queen. You didn’t have to spell out what this meant. Everyone knew it was a criticism of state paranoia. The spies in the forest were even wearing the uniforms of the state police. So we always expressed criticism. And sometimes the audience would read criticism into works where none was intended. And they would be thinking ‘Wow! They are so daring! They actually said that?’ But there were colleagues of ours who did try to speak in a more directly political way. And they did have trouble with the authorities”
Torsten added, “ Then, you did have a feeling that people actually heard you when you were being critical. Nowadays when you are critical they laugh; they don’t listen, nobody cares. But then, you definitely had the sense that criticism was effective.”
Did more people come to the puppet theatres then?
“Theatre was much more affordable back then.” Torsten remarked. “And it was considered a necessity. People were encouraged to go to the theatre from a very young age. The thought was, ‘If we can’t provide them with consumer goods, then we’ll provide them with culture.”
And after the Berlin Wall came down?
“It was a 180º turn.” Torsten said, “We had a professional career. Now we are freelancers.”
“In West Germany they weren’t working with puppets in a professional way.” Irene pointed out. “There weren’t university courses on puppetry. So West Germans were more self-taught or following older folk traditions. But there was no professional training.”
They had been cut off from puppetry in the West. And so it was a bit of a shock for them to see the accommodations that might have to be made to continue as puppeteers in the Western mode. Irene lamented some of the changes.
“So after the Wall came down the East German style began to become more of a popular entertainment mostly for children, although there was some movement the other way. But in the West is was more of an entertainment and in East Germany it was an art.”
When I asked them if they did shows for children they said “No! We do shows for families.” And the distinction was important for them. They didn’t want to be confined to the kiddie ghetto.
“When we have material, we think about what we are trying to convey, we don’t think about age groups.” Torsten explained. “ We try to get across the central idea, what we find fascinating in the material.”
When we did speak of contemporary children and their fixation on screens, they concurred with guignoliste Pascal Pruvost about the tangible reality of puppetry in communicating with modern kids. Irene called it the “live sensual nature” of the puppet.
Finally I just asked them the most basic, yet most difficult question: What is Puppetry?
Irene burst out laughing “Puppetry can do everything!”
Torsten agreed “It can portray thousands of images and fantasies.”
(Next: We travel to Poland to find some of the largest puppet theatres in the world.)
When in Berlin you MUST visit…
And Das Weite Theater
And don’t miss The Figure Circle
And remember to run these through translation tools if your German isn’t up to snuff. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t speak German, you’ll still find yourself truly impressed.